The Cheltenham Festival is one of the most prestigious meetings in the National Hunt racing calendar in the United Kingdom.
The festival takes place annually in March at Cheltenham Racecourse in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire. The modern racecourse occupies a 500 acre site which nestles in a natural amphitheatre created by the surrounding Cotswold foothills.
Horse racing at Cheltenham dates back to 1815, when the first recorded race took place on Nottingham Hill. The next meeting did not take place until 1818, when the venue was changed to Cleeve Hill, overlooking the present racecourse. The new venue proved a success and organisers built a new grandstand and increased the duration of the meeting to three days. In 1819, the very first Cheltenham Gold Cup was run, but as a three mile flat race, rather than the jump race we know today.
In 1829, the local parish priest, Francis Close, stirred up such strong feeling against racing that the venue had to be moved from the original site of Cleeve Hill to the current venue, Prestbury Park, following an arson attack on the grandstand.
The new venue proved a success, and in 1861 the National Hunt Meeting was held at Cheltenham for the first time. After moving to other venues, it returned to Cheltenham in 1904, 1905 and finally 1911, and has remained there ever since. Although still officially called the National Hunt Meeting, the event is now better known as the Cheltenham Festival.
Until 2005, the Festival had traditionally been held at the course over three days, but this changed with the introduction of a fourth day, meaning there would be one championship race on each day, climaxing with the Gold Cup on Friday.
The most famous race of the festival is the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which takes place on the last day. The modern version of the race, which includes jumps, was first held in 1924 for a purse of £685. The festival is now held in March, usually to coincide with St Patrick’s Day. Perhaps due to its timing, the event draws many of the best Irish horses to compete against the cream of the British crop. The total prize money for the festival is £3.67 million, of which almost half a million is set aside for the winner of the Gold Cup, making the race the most valuable non-handicap race in Britain. It still covers a distance of around three miles and incorporates 22 fences.
The most successful Gold Cup competitor remains Golden Miller, owned by the redoubtable and eccentric Dorothy Paget, who won every race between 1932 and 1936 (five in total), with a succession of different jockeys.
Other multiple winners are Arkle, who won three times between 1964 and 1966 with jockey Pat Taafle, and Cottage Rake, trained by the legendary Vincent O’Brien, who took the race from 1948 to 1950 inclusive.
Best Mate, also notched up three wins between 2002 and 2004, paired each time with jockey Jim Culloty.
The Gold Cup is so prestigious that it's only been cancelled a handful of times in its entire history. The first of these occasions occurred in 1931 when the course froze, and the second in 1937 due to flooding. During the Second World War the race was only cancelled twice, in 1943 and 1944. Most recently, the entire festival was cancelled in 2001 due to the then-ubiquitous foot and mouth disease.
Only seven horses have landed the Gold Cup more than once with Easter Hero (1929-30), L'Escargot (1970-71), added to the aforementioned quartet of Golden Miller, Cottage Rake and Arkle and Best Mate. Kauto Star, the most recent dual winner of the race, became the first horse to regain the Gold Cup after losing it when adding the 2009 contest to his 2007 success.
Arguably the greatest achievement by an individual came in 1983 when Michael Dickinson saddled the first five home, led by Bregawn, while the emotional successes of Dawn Run in 1986 and the hugely popular Desert Orchid, the most recent grey to win the race. Although many people associate Desert Orchid with the Gold Cup, he in fact only won it once in 1989; however, the win was made memorable by the extremely difficult weather conditions on the day.
The Gold Cup is not immune from shocks though, and in 1990 the 100-1 shot Norton’s Coin caused one of the biggest upsets in festival history, and to this day remains the longest-priced winner in the history of the race.
The disqualification of all-the-way winner Tied Cottage in 1980 for a positive dope test, caused by contaminated feed, also features amongst the Gold Cup’s more infamous events.
Day One - Tuesday 13th March:
On the first day of the Festival six races are held, beginning with the Supreme Novice Hurdle, a fast and furious event which is run for just over two miles of the course. Next, the Arkle Challenge Trophy is held, which is named after one of the festivals most famous competitors and is run over two miles of the racecourse. Competitors need speed and good jumping to succeed in this event.
Tuesday’s feature race is the Champion Hurdle, a favourite with the Cheltenham betting markets. The National Hunt Handicap Chase is held shortly after and is run over three miles. The Cross Country Chase is a popular event with both spectators and competitors alike as it adds a different dimension to the Festival. The final race of the day is the Juvenile Novices Handicap Hurdle.
Day Two - Wednesday 14th March & also Ladies Day:
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is one of the highlights of the whole festival. This feature race is feared by most bookmakers, as favourites often perform well. The Coral Cup has established itself as having a strong Irish winning connection. Also on Wednesday is the Kim Muir Challenge Cup Race, in which only amateur jockeys are allowed to compete. Events are rounded up with the Champion Bumper, a flat race run over two miles and under National Hunt rules.
Day Three - Thursday 15th March:
The first race on Thursday is the Jewson Novices Handicap Chase, one of the season’s top races for handicapped racers. Next comes the Daily Telegraph Festival Trophy, but
Thursday's predominant event is the Ladbrokes World Hurdle, arguably the most eagerly anticipated race of the festival. Also on Thursday is the Mildmay of Flete Handicap Chase, a race mainly for experienced competitors. The penultimate race of the day is the Cheltenham National Hunt Amateur Hunt; one of the most difficult races to predict in the entire festival. The final race is the Juvenile Handicap Hurdle, a new race which is fast becoming favoured by the Irish.
Day Four - Friday 16th March:
The final day of the festival is by far the most popular. The meeting begins with the Cheltenham Triumph Hurdle, the most notable event of the festival for the betting world. This is followed by the Brit Insurance Novices Hurdle, a race which was previously held at Sandown Park.
Undoubtedly the feature race of the entire meeting is the Cheltenham Gold Cup. This race is a real challenge to its competitors at three miles two furlongs long, and you can expect all eyes to be glued on the racecourse for the duration. Taking the task of following the Gold Cup is the Cheltenham Festival Foxhunter Chase, which is in its own right a key event for the hunter chase crew, with a strong competition existing between Irish and UK based trainers.
The penultimate race of the festival is the Grand Annual Chase, which is reserved solely for horses five years and over. Novices often do well in this event. There is a final betting stampede with the Country Handicap Hurdle, although it is one of the most difficult races to back. Events are truly brought to an end in spectacular style with this race.
The Festival is without doubt one of the biggest events on the racing calendar, bringing thousands of fans to the Prestbury Park course with millions wagered throughout the four days of racing.
While the 2012 Cheltenham Festival will miss St Patrick's Day that won't detract several thousand horse racing fanatics from Ireland, with those making the trip across the Irish Sea a feature of the strong crowds that converge on the festival.
Here are some simple numbers and facts that make the Cheltenham Festival such an important date in the racing calendar:
27 – Number of races to be held over the four days.
109 – Number of years since the first Cheltenham Festival was run at Prestbury Park.
82 – Number of Gold Cup races to have taken place at Cheltenham.
5 - Since its inception in 1924, just five Gold Cup races have had to be cancelled or abandoned.
5 – The number of Gold Cup’s won by Golden Miller, still the most in history. Golden Miller won five consecutive Gold Cups between 1932 and 1936 and is also the only horse to have won both the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year, achieved in 1934.
7 – The number of races won by Ruby Walsh at the 2009 festival, breaking the record for most festival wins by a jockey in a single year.
5 - Ruby Walsh has been the Jockey of the Year on five occasions, more than any other jockey.
5,000 - The number of staff employed by the racecourse for the four days of the Festival.
210,000 – Number of fans expected to pack into Cheltenham over the four days.
65,000 - Number of fans expected to pack into Cheltenham on Gold Cup Day alone.
214,000 – Estimated number of pints of Guinness drunk at the Cheltenham Festival.
18,000 - Number of bottles of Champagne expected to be drunk at the Cheltenham Festival.
£25,000,000 – Amount expected to be handed over in the betting ring alone – equivalent to £1m per race.
£50,000,000 - What the he Festival is worth to the local economy.
£3,700,000 – Estimated total amount of prize money on offer across the 27 races, making it the most valuable and prestigious fixture in jump racing.
£600,000,000 – Total amount expected to be wagered on the festival.
My Festival Betting Tips and some of the best Bookmaker offers:
Tuesday 2.05: Back SPRINTER SACRE in the Arkle.
I suggest you place this bet with Boylesports who will give you £40 of free bets for opening an account with them and your money back if your horse finishes second in this race!
Wednesday 1.30: Back UNIVERSAL SOLDIER each way, in the National Hunt Challenge Cup with Paddy Power.
Thursday 4.00: SALUT FLO in the Byrne Group Plate.
Top up your betting balance with £200 of free cash from Bet 365. Simply open an account, deposit up to £200 and get it matched.
Friday 2.40: Back BOSTON BOB in the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle with Skybet. Deposit nothing, and they will give you a £10 free bet!
Links to all these bookmakers and others can be found on this page.